When Marriage is Not a Sacrament
This week a 13 year old girl was given (sold?) into marriage with a 57 year old man in Limpopo. A Google search of the words ‘girl bride’ took me to The Elders’ ‘Girls not brides’ initiative, sites challenging the human rights violation of childhood marriage, as well as various adverts for my own ‘girl bride’ (should I want to buy one).
10 million girls under 18 will be married this year, some as young as 8 or 9. For all the growing awareness of the damage done to young women, and to the children they bear by childhood marriage, the topic itself has little coverage, partly because childhood marriage falls into the sensitive area of culture and tradition.
Just as less that a century ago in many Western countries the notion of rape within marriage was a not legally possible, so now the question of the rights of young girls to a childhood, to education and to the choice of marriage partner is counter cultural to many people.
For all that the UN Declaration of Human Rights declares ‘Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending of age spouses’, this is rejected by many cultures as imposed western morality.
What do us as Christians think? As a church we are sensitive to cultural practices, yet our understanding of marriage may contribute to this debate.
Marriage as a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. The church recognises that human sexuality has immense power for good or ill in the life of the individual. Abuses of sexuality have long term, sometimes life time implications for the victims. Loving self-giving sexuality has the potential to heal and restore, to deepen the individual’s ability to relate to God, self and others. Sacramental marriage emphasises that marriage should be a place of growth, love and deepening maturity.
The marriage of girls pulled out of school and required to shoulder burdens that they are neither physically nor emotionally ready for cannot be seen as an expression of inward grace. There is a high correlation between childhood marriage and poverty, HIV AIDS, newborn and infant mortality and household violence. Women’s bodies are not fully developed until 20, and risks related to pregnancy and birth is increased in younger woman. Teenagers coerced into marriage or sexual relationships often suffer profoundly, both psychologically and physically.
If we take seriously the call of the church to be light in the world, then we need to look at the places of extreme darkness. The marriage of children should be challenged. Their rights to education and self determination should be honoured by society. We have laws to protect the rights of children, but our legal system is often overwhelmed, and incapable or unwilling to enforce those laws. Our society is, however, only what we make of it. We have a responsibility to ourselves and others to work for the liberation of women and children from social and cultural norms that still regard them as being objects, or lesser persons than men.